Published July 18, 2000
Volume 8, Number 7

After a Wild Ride with Ascend Communications, Bernie Schneider is Ready for Another Rocket with Intira

By Jay Hipps
Network Editor 

Bernie Schneider looks back fondly on his first experience with a startup company that took off like a rocket. 

It was Ascend Communications and he had just moved west from Kansas City. Nothing he had seen in the Midwest had prepared him for what he was about to encounter, though.

"I was employee 114. Three and a half years later, we had 3,200 employees and sold the company for $22 billion," he says. "It was a real rocket ship ride and one of the things a lot of us from Ascend will say is that we managed to make some money, but we got to create some history, too." 

Bernie SchneiderNow, Intira is poised to make some history of its own. The company brings "netsourcing" to its clients -- providing an application or e-commerce platform over the Internet as well as engineering, implementation and management support on a day-to-day basis. Whether it's a simple web site, an interactive site with streaming media, an e-commerce site, or even an application that's only used internally in a company, Intira can handle it. 

"We basically become a business's information technology (IT) department," he explains. "We call it netsourcing but it's providing all of the IT network infrastructure for companies. We've got data centers in New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco, and we're building now in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris, and London." 

Schneider grew up in Chicago and lived there throughout his youth. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to Chicago to begin his career in the IT world. 

He started as a programmer, attracted to the problem solving aspects of the work. 

"You've got the business problem you're trying to solve and then how you use the technology. In school, you'd write code to see who could solve a problem in the fewest number of instructions," he says. "I love math, so to me it was just like one large calculus problem, and that's what got me interested in the IT world." 

The next step was working with systems, which appealed to him not only because of the intellectual challenges but also because he recognized an opportunity in the field. 

"There are thousands of people in the IT world; I was part of an IT department that had probably 300 people. I was in my mid-20's, saw a lot of people with more experience than me, and thought, 'How do I leapfrog those people?'" Unwilling to simply wait in line for an opportunity, he sought a way to advance himself to new heights.

His quest took him to Kansas City. "The network was becoming really important, not too many people understood it, and I knew someone at Sprint who brought me in. I managed about half of Sprint's data products, about a $600 million revenue stream. That's how I got into the TelCo (telecommunications) world." 

Watching Sprint's digital products gave him both a unique perspective on the growth of the Internet and the desire to move to the Bay Area to get involved in the industry. That desire landed him at Ascend, which in turn led him to Intira. 

"One of the groups I had under me at Ascend made investments in other companies and provided financing to all of our customers, so I got to see a lot of different business plans," he explains. "We had sold Intira some equipment, they were just getting started, and I got to know the management team and joined their board in April of '98." 

The founders of Intira, seeking experienced management to grow the company, sought Schneider's help with the task later that year. 

"Unbeknownst to them, we were negotiating at the time to sell Ascend to Lucent, so I said, 'I'll do better than help you find someone-- I'll do it.'"

Part of his motivation was due to his own prior experience. "At a personal level, it brought together by IT, my TelCo, and my Internet background together." 

As president and CEO of Intira, he has the opportunity to essentially build a company from the ground up -- the approach to business, the infrastructure, the culture. It's a task Schneider clearly relishes. 

"In watching a lot of other companies, investing in them, I was able to sit back and see what works, what doesn't work, and how to create a culture that has a lot of the strengths and benefits of a startup but tries to bring a little bit of the sanity that's normally associated with large companies."

Intira's beautiful facilities help establish that stable environment, as do elements of the company's infrastructure such as financial systems and human resources. 

"The infrastructure we've put in place presumes that we're going to be very successful. We refer to it as, 'We're swinging for the fences.' We're not interested in hitting some singles and doubles here; if it's not a home run, it's a failure." 

Part of that planning entails long-term strategy, which is a major part of Schneider's job. Although he believes that it's nearly impossible to forecast the Internet's growth further than two years out, he has some interesting observations. 

"What we hear from the typical CIO is that they're changing their business models very rapidly, to take advantage of the Internet," he begins. "The real issue is how to get to an e-business model. I'm not talking about just e-commerce-- it's all the different piece parts of a business: purchasing, customer management, e-commerce." 

Essentially, he sees that businesses are pushing to integrate as much of their operations as possible with the Internet where the new technology offers a competitive advantage. He also sees that outsourcing will be the most efficient way for many companies to do this, for economic reasons due to both the cost of technology and, especially, labor. 

"The latest number I saw is that there's a shortage of 300,000 senior IT people, yet the pressure the CIOs face is the CEO telling them, 'Get us onto the Internet, get us into e-commerce, get customer management systems up.' So the pressure to move faster is increasing yet the hurdles to moving faster are getting higher. That's really the crux of our value proposition; that's what we offer our customers." 

Schneider's program for the company is proving successful. 

"You work very hard but you see very direct results of doing that. It's easiest to measure it from a financial perspective, but when you see customers that really view you as a key partner in their success, that's pretty special."

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